One of the reasons I enjoy nonfiction writing so much is the amazing sense of place some writers are able to create. In Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, Sam Quinones creates a vivid juxtaposition between the idyllic 1950s city of Portsmouth, Ohio, and the Oxycontin-ravaged city it later became.
Quinones describes Portsmouth as it was in the 1950s: a quiet blue-collar town. The flourishing steel business saw the local factories expanding to keep up with demand. The steel factories provided work for much of the city, as well as being its economic pillar. When it came to leisure, it was all about Dreamland.
Dreamland was an outdoor pool facility, that grew over the years to include playgrounds, baseball diamonds and picnic areas. It was the place to be for fun: Parents would drop off kids on weekends, kids would stop by after school, it was the hang out and dating spot for teens. It was as wholesome and idyllic as middle America could get.
In more recent times, economic troubles hit Portsmouth hard. The steel factories so many relied on for work closed and were left abandoned. The city gave rise to America’s first “Pill Mills.” Pill Mills were pain clinics opened by doctors who would legally prescribe the opiate painkiller Oxycontin, in exchange for a $250 visitation fee. The first Pill Mill was so popular that people routinely formed lines that would stretch down the block. The clinics had to add more doctors, eventually prescribing millions of addictive Oxycontin pills every month. With so many pills available in the city, they became common currency. The Walmart suffered from endless shoplifting as addicts would go in with lists of items to steal in exchange for more pills. Home break-ins also increased as addicts tried to get power tools, electronics, anything of value they could sell for more Oxycontin.
I think the story of Portsmouth and its problems with prescription drugs is a compelling and fascinating story. Many smaller American cities have had similar economic problems as the steel industry collapsed and factories shutdown. But few, if any, fell as far as Portsmouth. Dreamland also helps to contextualize the rise of Oxycontin abuse, which is something that we also have trouble with in Canada.
Derek is currently enrolled in Algonquin College’s Professional Writing program, is an avid hat-wearer, and a voracious reader.